In 1981, when the first case of AIDS was reported, it was incorrectly considered only a gay man’s disease.
But, shockingly, in today’s day and age, a talk show interview of a British woman that has gone viral reveals similar ignorance. Despite the fact that countless men and women of all sexual preferences and races have become infected with HIV worldwide over the past 30 years, 48-year-old Rachel Dilley discusses her new diagnosis of HIV and admits that she didn’t think a white person could become infected with the virus. She continues to explain that she thought HIV — human immunodeficiency virus — was limited to people on the African continent, based on images she saw on television.
This widespread belief that only black people or Africans have HIV, while closed-minded, likely stems from a mix of research into the origin and early cases of HIV. Some scientists believe that an animal version of HIV in West Africa, called SIV or simian immunodeficiency virus, was most likely transmitted to humans and changed into what we know as HIV when the animals were hunted for meat and people were exposed to the infected blood. It is thought that this crossover to humans may have happened as early as the late 1800s.
Scientists also believe the first cases of HIV likely arrived in the United States by the 1970s and some of those were linked to Haitians who had worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s.
And it is, in fact, true that the black American population has been hard hit by HIV/AIDS. In 1990, what was considered a “white gay man’s disease” in the United States, then changed, and the number of new HIV diagnoses among black Americans exceeded the number of new diagnoses among whites. This trend continued until the present — with black heterosexual women making up most of the new cases.
But HIV isn’t limited to Africans, Haitians or black Americans. To extrapolate that is to draw very uninformed conclusions.
In fact, HIV isn’t limited to black Africans in Britain either — Half of all new HIV diagnoses in Britain in 2012 were whites, with black Africans making up 24 percent of new diagnoses.
More than 30 years after the identification of HIV and AIDS, it is pretty clear that the fighter cells affected by HIV — called CD4 — are found in all humans, regardless of race or ethnicity. Yes, there are populations that are more at risk — intravenous drug users or those who engage in sex with them, men who have sex with men, people with multiple sexual partners — but it is not exclusive to either group or any one race. Obviously, this woman is evidence of that.
Dilley’s type of ignorance is scary and dangerous. It increases the risk for her and other uninformed people to become infected with HIV simply from lack of education. Had she known that was even a possibility, perhaps she would have been more cautious about what she describes as a “fling,” used condoms or just abstained altogether.
With effective suppressive treatment removing the “death sentence” aspect from having HIV, there is a lackadaisical attitude toward the seriousness of this disease in general. Combined with the attached stigma, which keeps people quiet about HIV, there will always be ignorance that makes some folks believe that HIV will affect “them” and not “me.”
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for MSNBC’s theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey and clinical instructor of emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.